Britons and the beach. It’s a love affair that has waxed and waned over the years. But for the past two summers with covid rules severely impacting foreign travel, it’s been a passion reborn. We flocked to the seaside in droves.
There’s nothing better than unzipping your tent in the morning to be greeted by the sight, sounds and smell of the beach. It’s right at the top of my camping highlights. Freedom, freshness and almost without exception that ‘great to be alive’ feeling.
But there are issues and beach camping is a hot topic when it comes to our mailbag. One question comes up more than most:
Is It Illegal To Camp on A Beach?
The short answer for England, Wales and Northern Ireland is sadly, yes, it’s pretty much illegal. Exceptions to the rule are very few and far between and effectively boil down to the whim of private landowners. To understand why, here’s the long answer.
Who Owns The Beaches?
There are two main myths when it comes to ownership. It’s commonly believed that the beach isn’t owned by anybody. Or to put it another way, it belongs to us all – the people. Sadly, that’s not true.
The second myth is that it’s owned in its entirety by the Queen. Wrong again. All beaches are actually owned by a small group of bodies:
- The Crown Estate
- The Ministry of Defence
- The National Trust
- Local Authorities
- Private landowners
Of these, The Crown Estate manages almost half of the beaches in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – 46% to be precise. And what they define as beach is the foreshore, the land between mean high and mean low water mark.
Not allowing camping is a straightforward call for them. Regardless of any other considerations the foreshore is tidal, so every six hours and 12.5 minutes the water goes from high to low or vice versa. It’s not somewhere you want to be pitched overnight.
You can check which beaches The Crown Estate manage through their interactive map:
The Ministry Of Defence is another absolute no-no. Fair enough. You don’t want your morning call to be a shell whistling over your tent.
The National Trust takes the same position. It proudly boats on its website that it owns some of the best beaches in the country. It’s happy to let you walk on them but camping is an entirely different matter. All 780 miles of its coastline are off limits to beach camping.
There had been hints they were reconsidering the policy. Unfortunately, in the summer of 2020 tens of thousands of people swamped their land after being freed from covid lockdown. In their wake they left a horror trail of debris. So the National Trust stick explicitly to the no camping rule.
Local authorities have a similar stance. During the same post-lockdown frenzy, a major incident was declared in Bournemouth after the town was deluged with tourists. The beaches proved irresistible at day and night. Fines of £1,000 were threatened against people found camping overnight.
I spoke to the Local Government Association about this. They said they were unable to find a specific law about beach camping but took the view that wild camping rules were applicable. In other words, still no go. However, they didn’t rule out the possibility that some local council beaches could open make their own rules and beaches to camping. But did they know of any such council? Again, no.
That only leaves one possibility – privately owned beaches. You’ll need the express permission of the landowner to pitch a tent. Get that, and you’re good to go. Just don’t count on it happening.
What Are The Penalties For Breaching The Rules?
If you do camp on a beach you’ll be breaching the rules of trespass. The good news here is that this is a civil offence. You can’t be arrested for it ….at first. You’ll simply be asked or told to move on. That’s the point where you really need to leave. Failure to do so opens you up to the possibility of a charge of aggravated trespass, and that’s a criminal offence.
There’s a maximum penalty of three months imprisonment or a fine of £2,500 or even both. In reality that’s unlikely to happen to first-time offenders. But you’re still facing a potential fine of a couple of hundred pounds.
Can I Beach Camp In Scotland?
While camping on a beach in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is pretty much illegal, it’s different in Scotland. The Land Reform Act of 2003 firmly established rights of public access to most land. This includes more than 6,000 miles of coastline, give or take a thousand miles or so as nobody can seem to agree .
You can camp on a beach on the condition you follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. The three principles are;
- Respect the interest of others
- Care for the environment
- Take responsibility for your own actions
For any camper, in any location, these should be a given.
Arthur Penlington is the former Senior Editor of the BBC TV News Channel. He spent 18 years with the corporation. He covered three wars from the frontlines and stories from five continents.
He’s passionate about travel and the outdoors. After moving to Australia he sold his house and travelled the world for almost eight years. He’s written a top 3 travel humour book – Around The World In Wonder Socks – based on a year backpacking the world with no plan. Destinations were decided by the toss of a coin.
He’s camped in Australia, Asia, Europe and Africa and spent time with a former headhunter tribe, deep in the Borneo Jungle.